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Mirage and Memory

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When first they met, Therem and Ashe did not know each other's names. Therem had come to the kemmering house a stranger to the town. The grief that he brought with himself was newly cut, and like a view through a lens of flawed ice it changed everything he saw. The wet, heavy snow that fell that night was a snow he had known every winter of his life, all the way to his childhood, and yet it was new that night. The wind that shrieked as it sliced its way between the houses of the town was a wind he had heard before, even in the woods of Kerm Land, but it seemed that it was new that night. So when Therem saw Ashe, flushed with with the moment's heat of kemmer, he saw Ashe anew, and it was as if he was meeting his beloved all over again.

The resemblance was a chance of mirage and memory. In the fullness of light, Ashe's resemblance to Arek could be reduced, like equations, painlessly and bloodlessly into a slant of eyebrow, a coincidental way of tilting the head back, the angle made by the cheekbone. But there was no such fullness of light in the kemmering house.

No one of sound mind would have mistaken one for the other. Therem was not of sound mind that night, or for many nights thereafter.

So it was that Therem came into Ashe's arms. There was noise within the darkness, and singing, songs whose only lyric was Come to me, over and over, dull and demanding. The mattress upon which they coupled had lumps that neither of them noticed. In any case, all mattresses are one mattress to a man in kemmer.

It was not Ashe's name that Therem called when Ashe took him for the first time.


They learned each other's names after their first night together, lying together in the darkness. Ashe nuzzled Therem, soothing him with his touches. Therem, for his part, did not slip again. But each time they lay with each other, the name cut his throat from the inside; the name bled out from every sound he made. And Ashe heard it, in the way that kemmerings do.

Ashe did not say: The one you left was a brother to you, isn't that the story. For the tale had preceded Therem on the road, and Ashe had drawn the logical conclusion. He did not say: I will make you forget. He did not say much of anything at all, not in the speech with words. He spoke instead with kisses alternately demanding and sweet, and with his slender hands. His hands said: Think of me. That was all he could say without going so far as to offer advice. A man such as Therem would not suffer that lightly, even in kemmer.


The union did not bear fruit the first time. Therem could have parted from Ashe then, saying that they were chance-met in the kemmering house, and they owed nothing to one another. Day by day he put off the decision, and lingered in the town.

Therem found work, or rather, the work found him. Men in that town had a long-standing quarrel with the next town, a matter of territory. Most outsiders had little interest in the dispute, as the land in question was little frequented by travelers or traders. Therem made a point of talking to the people most aggrieved, and making suggestions without impinging on their shifgrethor.

The townsmen saw in Therem an outsider with an uncanny knack for speaking. Ashe saw something different. He invited Therem to his home for dinner for evenings than not, and Therem accepted more evenings than not.

"It gives you something to do, doesn't it?" Ashe said to Therem. "There is an emptiness inside you. It is not the proper emptiness of the Handdarata but something uglier, that urges you to action rather than proper indifference."

"Nusuth," Therem said, a joke. Yet he saw from Ashe's dark eyes that Ashe was troubled yet.


The second time, Therem did not go to the kemmering house, although he was sorely tempted. He was tempted to leave the town altogether, find himself another stranger in a procession of strangers. Instead he lingered until his kemmer was fully upon him, and walked uninvited to Ashe's house.

It was not a long walk measured in steps. It was a very long walk measured in the silences of the mind. His feet crunched in the snow with its bright hard crust. The sound seemed unbearably loud.

Twice he almost turned back. Twice he did not, and continued on the familiar road, taking the final turn until he came to Ashe's doorstep.

Before he could knock upon the door, it opened. Ashe stood aside for Therem to enter. "You have come all this way," Ashe said. "You may as well come a little farther still."

Therem could not argue the logic of that. He crossed the threshold and pressed a kiss to Ashe's cheek. It was a chaste kiss tonight; tomorrow it would not be.

"Tell me you won't leave," Ashe said. "I have grown accustomed to your emptiness."

"Then that is because it completes something inside you," Therem said. He had seen such things between kemmerings before. "I will not pretend that I understand it, but if you truly do not mind--"

"Come inside," Ashe said, "and let us have no more of words."


After Ashe became pregnant with their first child, Therem and Ashe took oath. Ashe did not ask for it. His patient not-asking, even as he grew great with child, so preyed upon Therem's mind that he was driven to suggest it himself.

Therem regretted asking the moment the words left his mouth. But he was a proud man, and his shifgrethor would have been too much harmed if he had retracted the offer. He knew, even then, that the oath could not last.

In the month of Tuwa they met before the town's witnesses, sharing the oath-cup. The emptiness within Therem only deepened.


There came the first child, and a child after that, and a child after that.

Therem stayed for the children's sake.


When the youngest of the children was weaned, Ashe asked, in a moment of weakness, if Therem still thought of the brother whose name that he had cried out so long ago, when they first met.

"I have nothing to say to you," Therem replied. "It is a thing of the past. It does not exist anymore where you can see it."

"Yet it stands between us at all hours, dividing us," Ashe said.

Therem said nothing.

That night Ashe took the children and left.


Three years passed.


At the last, Therem called for Arek; Arek, not Ashe.


Ashe wept later, when he heard of the bullets; and even in the absence of the speech without words, he knew. He knew.